Literary Techniques in Coleridge’s “Rime of The Ancient Mariner”

Discussion of Important Literary Techniques and examples, used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

            Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of the most famous poems.  It is an elderly seafarer’s tale, in rhyme and verse.  The poem begins with an aged mariner disrupting a man about to enter church for a relative’s wedding.  Through force of will, a hypnotic gaze, and an epic tale, the “ancient mariner” holds the frustrated wedding guest’s attention:

He holds him with his glittering eye -

The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three years’ child:

The Mariner hath his will.

            Now, the wedding guest must listen to the story of the mariner’s dramatic, trying experience at sea:

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been

Alone on a wide wide sea:

So lonely ’twas, that God himself

Scarce seemed there to be.

            While interesting and dramatic, the poem would not enjoy lasting fame had it been mere prose or just rhymed verse.  Rather, the poet’s use of many literary techniques help make the work memorable.  This article discusses some of the techniques used by Coleridge in Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

            Rhyme.  Coleridge’s title tells us the poem’s most important technique.  Rhyme refers to the use of similar or parallel sounds in accented syllables.  Coleridge uses two types of rhyme: end rhyme, which occurs at the end of lines, and internal rhyme, which occurs within lines.  Consider the following stanza:

The sun came up upon the left,

Out of the sea came he!

And he shone bright, and on the right

Went down into the sea.

            These lines describe the rising and setting sun.  They tell the reader (or listener) the direction taken by the mariner’s ship – southward.  If the sun rose to the ship’s right, then the ship had to be headed south.

            The last words of the second and fourth lines rhyme (“he” and “sea”).  These are end rhymes.  Throughout the poem, every other line is end-rhymed.  Within the second line, “sea” and “he;” and within the third line “bright” and “right” are internal rhymes.  The poem also makes extensive use of internal rhymes.  As this is the most extensively used technique in the poem, it is sometimes referred to as simply, the “Rime.”

            Rhyme has been used historically to make written and spoken words more pleasant, and memorable, and the technique achieves these purposes in Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  No doubt, the use of rhyme helped the aged sailor himself, to recall the details and lines so he could retell his long story in verse.

            Rhythm, or Meter.  The work is a poem, not a story in prose.  Poetry often involves use of regular patterns of stressed and unstressed (accented and unaccented) syllables.  Mostly, the poem alternates between 8 and 6 syllable lines mostly in four- or six-line stanzas.  Though there are exceptions.  Some stanzas are 5 or even 9 lines.  Some lines have more syllables.  But the poem is long, and the mariner is old.  They can be excused for deviations, and anyway the variety makes the poem more interesting.

            Alliteration.  This means repeating the same sounds in several words, especially the words’ first letter.  Alliteration is another technique to make lines memorable.  Here are some alliterations in Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  First an alliteration of “f” and “l” “r” and “s” sounds:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,

The furrow followed free;

We were the first that ever burst

Into that silent sea.

The effect of the alliterations is heightened by use at the same time of end and internal rhymes (blew – flew; first – burst; free – sea).   Here are some “d” and “s” alliterations in the poem:

Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down,

‘Twas sad as sad could be;

And we did speak only to break

The silence of the sea!

Here, the affect of alliterations is heightened by use of repetition, a technique discussed next.

            Repetition.  This refers to Coleridge repeating words or phrases.  In the stanza just quoted, the author repeats the words “dropped,” “down” and “sad.”  Here are some other examples of repetition: 

Below the kirk, below the hill,

Below the lighthouse top.

The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around.

            The mariner’s central act is killing an albatross.  The mariner  uses repetition in retelling this incident:

And I had done a hellish thing,

And it would work ‘em woe:

For all averred, I had killed the bird

That made the breeze to blow.

Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,

That made the breeze to blow!

            The poet uses repetition for emphasis, as in the above stanza.  Another form of repetition, called anaphora is used in the Rime to convey a sense of vastness or ongoing monotony.  Anaphora is repeating an expression at the start of two or more sentences, or lines, as in the “below the kirk” stanza quoted above, as well as the following passage:

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean

Anaphora is used to convey vastness of surroundings, in one of the famous poem’s most famous lines:

Water, water, everywhere

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.

            In addition to repetition within stanzas, some words, ideas and phrases recur throughout the poem.   An example is “fear.”  The idea of fear at dangerous and threatening events, runs throughout the poem and the word appears repeatedly.  Moreover, on three occasions in the poem, the frustrated wedding guest, even while listening, expresses his own fear of the story-telling mariner.

            Metaphor.  This technique involves identifying one object as if it were something or someone else.  The writer treats one thing as if it is another.  Metaphor is an important characteristic of language and thought generally.  It lets a speaker economically and subtly draw attention to particular characteristics of a person or thing, by invoking something else that embodies those characteristics.

            As an example, while sailing south the ship is pursued, and overtaken, by a storm.  The mariner states:

And now the storm-blast came, and he

Was tyrannous and strong:

He struck with his o’ertaking wings,

And chased us south along.

The mariner identifies the storm as a person, oppressive and dangerous (”tyrannous and strong”) in flight (”with his o’ertaking wings”) and thus unobstructed in a successful pursuit of the ship.   

            Simile.  Closely related to the use of metaphor, is the use of “simile.”  This is a form of speech and thought in which dissimilar objects are compared, by stating that one is “like” or “as” another.   The stanza quoted in the opening paragraph of this article states that the Wedding-Guest listened “like a three year [old] child.”  The speaker thus attributes to the wedding-guest the characteristics of a toddler, entranced in listening to the story.   Elsewhere the poem uses simile to give crackling icebergs the sounds of “noises in a swound;” slimy sea water the texture of “witch’s oils;” and souls leaving dead bodies, the sound and sense of “the whizz” of a crossbow.

            Personification   Personification is treating inanimate things (or animals) as having human characteristics.  It is a type of metaphor. The metaphor discussed above, in which the storm overtakes the mariner’s ship, exemplifies personification.   The poet gives a storm, which is a phenomena of weather, the human character of a tyrant, the human quality of strength, and the human emotional desire of pursuit.  Likewise, in the stanza quoted above to illustrate rhyme, the poet treats the sun, as a person: “Out of the sea came he!”

            Inversion.  This refers to changing the order of words compared to the usual speech pattern.  For example:

I closed my lids, and kept them close,

And the balls like pulses beat;

In these two lines the mariner says he closed his eyes and his eyeballs beat like a pulse. (Note the simile).  In the usual form of speech  the speaker would say the eyeballs “beat like a pulse.”  Here the speaker inverts the words “pulse,” and “beat,” by reversing their order.

            Irony .  The “Rime” makes frequent use of irony.  Irony is a sort of wry, clever humor in which the sense of the words leads the listener or reader in one direction, but then turns sharply the other way, so the ultimate message is opposite the original sense of the words.

            One example occurs in one of the poem’s most famous couplets.  The ship and crew are “stuck,” stranded under the hot sun (”the bloody Sun, at noon”); “idle,” like a “painted ship, upon a painted ocean.”  It is like being stranded in a dry hot desert.  To add emphasis to the sense of hopelessness, and thirst, the poet notes that the surroundings are “water, everywhere.”  Then comes the ironic twist.  The water is undrinkable ocean salt-water.  Worse than mere thirst, the crew is subjected to a grim form of water torture: “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”   

            Well into the poem, many tribulations have been told. The mariner faints.  In his stupor he hears two spirits speaking.  The poet tells us that one “was a softer voice, as soft as honey-dew.”  Said that spirit, “the man hath penance done.”  A spirit speaking in soft voice, noting that the mariner has done his penance — “perhaps,” thinks the reader or listener, “the mariner’s troubles are over.”   Not so.  The poet toys with the reader, and the spirits toy with the mariner, using irony to let each know the mariner’s tribulations are not over:

The other was a softer voice,

As soft as honey-dew:

Quoth he, `The man hath penance done,

And penance more will do.

            Contrast.  The poem makes extensive use of contrast and opposites to bring the story’s imagery into sharp relief.  Examples are abundant.  The poem contrasts age with youth, individuals and groups; color with lack of color, height with depth; life with death, noise with silence, motion with stillness, heat with cold; night and day, the rising with the setting sun, good with evil, water with thirst, and numerous other opposites and contrasts as well.   Here are some examples:

            Age Contrasted With Youth.  The opening stanza notes “It is an ancient Mariner.”   He stops one of three guests arriving at a wedding.  Soon, “the Wedding-Guest stood still” and listens “like a three years’ child” to the Mariner’s story.

            Individuals Contrasted With Groups.  The individual mariner sees a passing group of three, about to attend the wedding.  He stops one of the three.  As the mariner begins his tale, the poem notes that the wedding party is starting in the church.

            Rising and Setting Sun.  “The sun came up upon the left, Out of the sea came he! And he shone bright, and on the right; Went down into the sea.”

            Cold and Heat:  At one point the Mariner notes:      

And now there came both mist and snow,

And it grew wondrous cold.

Later, heat:

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the moon.

 

            Color:  At one point the mariner notes:

ice, mast-high, came floating by,

As green as emerald.

Elsewhere, the Mariner recounts:

The water, like a witch’s oils,

Burnt green, and blue, and white.

Elsewhere, lack of color:

And through the drifts the snowy clifts

Did send a dismal sheen.

            Noise:

The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around:

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled

Like noises in a swound!

Later, silence:

*     *     *

And we did speak only to break

The silence of the sea!

            Motion:

We were the first that ever burst

Into that silent sea.

Later, stillness:

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

            Rime of the Ancient Mariner was first published in 1798.  A revised version was published in the early 1800s.  The complete poem, and commentaries, are easy to find on the internet.  Just enter “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in a search engine.

            These are not all the literary techniques in the poem, nor does this article discuss anywhere near all the poem’s examples of the techniques that are mentioned.  By re-reading Rime of the Ancient Mariner, reliving with the Mariner his trying journey, and closely studying the text, you will discover more techniques and more examples.  Your voyage with the Mariner, and your discoveries, will keep this exciting tale alive.

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